Do writers read other writers when they’re working on their novels?
Some avoid it — they’ll tell you that they don’t want another writer’s voice to infect theirs. But there’s another group that doesn’t worry about getting infected — in fact, they welcome it.
Willa Cather liked to read from the Bible’s King James Version before beginning her own work; Norman Mailer wrote a preface that described how he’d dip into the pages of Tolstoy’s War and Peace before working on his own mammoth book of war, The Naked and the Dead. And then there’s the following remark from Zadie Smith (White Teeth, On Beauty), which I stumbled on recently.
“My writing desk is covered in open novels,” Smith says in her 2009 collection Changing My Mind. She reads novels as she writes her own books
…to swim in a certain sensibility, to strike a particular note, to encourage rigor when I’m too sentimental, to bring verbal ease when I’m syntactically uptight.
Reading others, for Smith, doesn’t smother her own voice. Instead, she considers it a palate cleanser, an inspiration and a reminder, even a centering exercise if she feels that she’s not striking the sensibility that she wants.
For me, it’s been something else as well: a healing factor.
Why? Because revising a novel is very disruptive to the original draft — sometimes, yes, the grafting of new material feels remarkably organic; but at other times, as I’ve recently found, it can be very traumatic, painful. The insertion of new material cuts deeply into the original narrative’s fibers. The new material pulses like a fresh angry wound, shouts for attention, itches and tingles, while the rest of the story line continues on in its tested, measured, quieter rhythms. The lack of harmony between the parts can be unbearable.
I spent a great deal of time, and mental anguish, trying to reconcile a discordant new section of my novel with the other parts.
The tone of the new section felt different; its perspective was different. But I couldn’t help that. I’m sure you understand what I mean, my dear friends. When sections of a novel are created at different times, many months apart, then they’ve really been written by two different writers. The passing of time changes a writer, even if that person looks the same in the mirror.
My novel is set in the late 19th and early 20th centuries — there are plenty of supernatural twists and mysteries, plenty of things to classify as “the fantastic.” And the best tone for treating such things, I’ve found, is a calm, restrained one–when things are surprising enough, having a surprising tone doesn’t work. The opposite is better.
Even though I understood that, I couldn’t do it. I had trouble finding the proper angle and restraint, that muted tone of slight bemusement, for this late addition to my book, which involves an eccentric bit of literary scholarship.
Until I went back to The Waterworks.
Doctorow’s novel treats a premise that, in another writer’s hands, would have become a breathless sci-fi story. What he provides is a measure of elegance and restraint that keeps his premise squarely tethered to the ground. The tone of his book is something difficult to fully describe — only that I found, once I’d swum in those waters, that I understood what I needed to do.
My friends, what books have healed your own writing and why? Let’s have a conversation once you come up for air.
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